World building – immediate community #amwriting

We have discussed the larger aspects of world-building – power structures such as religion and politics. We’ve talked about food, and about how word choices convey imagery which contributes to the reader’s visualization of the written world. Now we’re going to examine the immediate world, the community your character lives in.

If I were writing a story starring me as the main character, I would open it with a couple of 50-something empty nesters moving to a small quarry town, twenty miles south of the state capitol.

But what sort of town is this?

Tenino is a bedroom community; the commute isn’t too bad and homes here are affordable, whereas homes in Olympia tend to be quite expensive. This town has a long history of boom and bust; quarrymen, loggers, and farmers settled here.

Timber is no longer big here. Nowadays our town is famous for Wolf Haven International, sandstone art, crafted whiskey, and wine. We still have a few large cattle ranches out on the Violet Prairie, but 5-to-7-acre executive “horse properties,” llama farms, alpaca ranches, goat yoga, and soap-making classes have found fertile ground here. In the early part of the 20th century bootlegging was an industry here (my maternal grandfather) so having the distilleries is the legal continuation of an old tradition.

It’s an isolated town, filled with quirky, wonderful people, and situated in a valley with heavily forested hills on the outskirts. If a fictional story were set in this town, it would feature the same political schisms that divide the rest of our country. There are other tensions. Some families have been here for generations, and  a few don’t appreciate the influx of low-paid state workers buying cookie-cutter tract homes here.

Other than the few local businesses, most people commute to work in Olympia or one of the other surrounding communities.

My street is a stretch of rough blacktop with no sidewalks. It runs east and west, with a fabulous view of Mount Rainier rising at the east end. It is lined with homes on both sides, but it’s divided. A nicely landscaped mobile home park is on the north side of the street, across from my front door. On the south side of the street is the long row of forty stick-built homes, built in 2005 just before the housing bubble crashed. On my side of the street, the row of homes are nearly identical, as there are only two types of floor plans, one for three bedrooms (mine) or the four-bedroom version.

This makes for a seriously boring-looking neighborhood, so for a few years we had the only house with an orange door.

The day we moved into our brand-new home in 2005, two inches of rain fell, making moving a misery. Our new house rose out of a sea of mud and rocks. With a lot of effort, we made a pleasant yard. When the housing bubble burst, many of the people on my side of the street lost their jobs, and their homes went into foreclosure.

For several years, wherever there were two or more empty houses, it looked somewhat like a ghost town. Also, there was a long period when our house was valued at far less than we paid for it, which meant that had we wanted to, we couldn’t sell it.

My town has one grocery store, which carries the basics, but their produce is awful, and you really have to check the pull dates on things like eggs, hummus, and cottage cheese. It’s more affordable to shop in Olympia.

We have a historic district, where the buildings are all built from sandstone quarried at the old quarries. Many of the old buildings are home to antique stores. The masonic lodge is made of Tenino sandstone.

The city park is a pleasant place to go on a hot Saturday afternoon, with a large public swimming pool in one of the flooded quarries.

It’s a nice place, a quiet town with several large Baptist churches, a Catholic church, and a large number of small off-shoot fundamentalist churches. Alas, those of us of the Lutheran persuasion must go to Olympia to find God.

In the morning, birdsong fills the air. Robins, wrens, finches, hummingbirds, crows, Stellar’s jays, mourning doves – the neighborhood is alive with birds.

Odors are important. The meat department at the grocery store smokes their own ribs and other cuts, and the wind carries the scent all over the neighborhood. When they mow the fields at the edge of our town the smell of cut hay fills the air.

During the day when I go outside, I can hear the children playing at the school. In the evening, the neighborhood is filled with the sounds of kids playing in each other’s yards.

Other familiar sounds are the traffic on Highway 507, and the horns sounding from the trains passing at the west end of town. Annoyingly, helicopters from the nearby military base sometimes buzz our town—flying low over our roofs, shaking the houses, rattling dishes in the cupboards.

It’s the perfect setting for a paranormal fantasy or a murder mystery.

Your characters subtly identify with the community they live in. Small town or large city, village or hut in the forest – where they are from shapes how they think, how they see the world. This is true of fantasy and sci-fi stories as well as murder mysteries and thrillers.

Visualize your own community and write a word picture of it. Then visualize the community your characters live in and write a word picture of this imaginary place.

Ambient sounds, odors, places the characters regularly frequent—these form the general environment, the setting of your story. This is the immediate world, the world of community.


Credits and Attributions

Photos and images in this post are from the authors personal collection © Connie Jasperson 2019

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World Building – creating political structures #amwriting

Every society, fantasy, sci-fi, or real-world, must have an overarching political structure—a government of some sort. Humans are tribal – like all primates we are comfortable when we have a hierarchy of decision-makers to guide the tribe.

A simple society might consist of an elder and several trusted advisors.

A more complex society might have a monarch leading a society composed of multiple layers:

Monarch/Royalty

→Nobility

→→Lesser Nobility

→→→Upper Middle Class

→→→→Middle Class

→→→→→Lower Middle Class

→→→→→→Lower Class

→→→→→→→Poorest Class

Every human society, large or small, is divided into layers and classes, whether we want to admit it or not. Change the word “Monarch” to “Mayor,” Governor,” “President,” “Pope,” or “Prime Minister,” and the society they lead falls into the same layers.

This is because someone is always more important, richer, has more power, makes the rules.

The politics of a society are an invisible construct that affects every aspect of a story, even if it isn’t directly addressed. Our characters have a place within that structure. When you know what that place is, you write their story accordingly. If you know your characters’ social caste, you know if they are rich or poor; hungry or well-fed. This will shape them throughout the story:

  • Hunger drives conflict
  • Well-fed could mean a complacent society

Every society has laws, inviolable rules. Breaking these laws has consequences.

Some small tribal societies have unwritten codes of ethics, but they are as firmly enforced as any written laws. When a character goes against the commonly accepted rules, they must face the consequences.

That flouting of civil laws is an opportunity for conflict.

Sometimes I run short of words on a new project but I can’t set it aside. At that point I go deep into the backstory and examine the hidden underpinnings of their society. Little, if any, of this backstory will enter into the finished product. But I have found that when my characters are sure of what their station in society is, I can write their journey with confidence and authority.

I need to know who they are, how they see themselves and their future, and how they fit organically into their world.

One aspect that is a hidden support structure of every fantasy society is the government.  Even if it doesn’t come into the story, take a few moments to examine the political power structure of your world. It’s a good idea to write down a page or so of information detailing the political and monetary structure of the world your characters inhabit.

As I create the political power-structure, I find that the opportunities for creating tension within the story also grow. I keep a list of those ideas so that when I run short on creativity, I have a bit in the bank, so to speak.

However, in order to convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work. Does the government/legal system affect your characters? If not, this exercise is a waste of time, sorry.

  • Who has the power and privilege in that society, and who is the underclass?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • Monarchy, Elected officials, Warlords, Shamans, or what?
  • How do they get that power? Hereditary, elected, military coup?
  • What laws affect your characters or hinder them?
  • How are the governing people perceived? Foolish or wise? Honest or Corrupt?
  • What place does religion have in this society? We examined religion last week in the post Creating Power Structures and Religions.
  • What passes for morality? You only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws, what are the consequences?

One critical aspect of society that governments have control of is money. If you have a fantasy society, design a simple monetary system. Keep it simple, so you don’t contradict yourself over the course of the story.

I use the same system in all three of my fantasy worlds. A Gold is comprised of 10 Silvers. A Silver is comprised of 10 Coppers.

In a sci-fi world, you can get away with using a blanket term like credits. These are easy concepts for a reader to imagine without your having to go into detail. Examples might be:

  • Innkeeper: “A mug of ale is three coppers. No coppers, no ale.”
  • Spaceport pawnbroker: “It’s unregistered. A weapon like this is worth five hundred credits, don’t you agree?”

If you’re writing in a speculative fiction world and you absolutely must use created names for money and positions, make those words simple to read and pronounce, and once you have established them, don’t deviate from them.

Good world building takes the familiar and shapes it into unfamiliar ways. It’s only my opinion, but I suggest you keep to familiar terms for leaders. King/queen, president, mayor, admiral, captain—these are terms that convey an image with no effort on your part. Anything the reader doesn’t have to research is good. If you are too enthusiastic in creating an entire language in order to convey a sense of foreignness, you have gone to a great deal of trouble only to lose the majority of readers.

When you are building a world that only exists on paper, you must be sparing with the space you devote to conveying the social, religious, and political climate of your story.  This is atmosphere. This is knowledge the characters have, but the reader does not.

There is no need to have an introductory chapter describing the laws and moral codes of the religious order of St Anthony, or the political climate of East Berlin in 1962. The way you convey this is to show how these larger societal influences affect your character and his/her ability to resolve their situation.

You show this in small ways, with casual mentions in conversation ONLY when it becomes pertinent, and not through info dumps.

Familiar words convey familiar images. Use them wisely in showing an entire fantasy world. Consider the politics in a medieval setting:

Setting:

  1. the village of Imaginary Junction, in the Barony of Blackthorn.

General atmosphere:

  1. the weather is unseasonably cold

Introduce the protagonist and show him in his situation:

  1. In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is  hiding.

Introduce the antagonist(s):

  1. Soldiers of Baron Blackthorn, whom Sebastian has inadvisably humiliated in a song are searching for him.

Introduce the way politics and power affect the protagonist:

  1. the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian
  2. he is hauled before the angry baron and
  3. thrown into prisonsentenced to hang at dawn.

The bolded words above offer a reader powerful images of both the physical and political world Sebastian lives in. These words are familiar to every reader of fantasy. They convey emotions and a feudal atmosphere without you having to resort to an info dump of the history of Imaginary Junction.

Show the coldness of the alley, show the irate nobleman’s anger, show the wretchedness of the protagonist in prison, show the arrogance of the soldiers. Use familiar terms to convey entire packets of images wherever possible, and they will be unobtrusive, allowing the reader to live the story, to fear the coming dawn as much as Sebastian does.


Image Credits and Attributions:

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540 / Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Enrique VIII de Inglaterra, por Hans Holbein el Joven.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Enrique_VIII_de_Inglaterra,_por_Hans_Holbein_el_Joven.jpg&oldid=344005488 (accessed June 2, 2019

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Augustus Edwin Mulready Fatigued Minstrels 1883.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883.jpg&oldid=335802594 (accessed June 2, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Ernst Meyer – A Roman Alley – KMS2097 – Statens Museum for Kunst.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Ernst_Meyer_-_A_Roman_Alley_-_KMS2097_-_Statens_Museum_for_Kunst.jpg&oldid=330745323 (accessed June 2, 2019).

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#FineArtFriday: Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin 1888

Title: Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers

Artist: Paul Gauguin

Genre: portrait

Date: 1888

Medium: oil on jute

Dimensions: Height: 73 cm (28.7 ″); Width: 91 cm (35.8 ″)

About this Painting, via Wikipedia:

The portrait was painted when Gauguin visited Van Gogh in Arles, France. Vincent had pleaded with Gauguin to come to Arles to start an art-colony. Gauguin eventually agreed after funding for the transportation and expenses was provided by Vincent’s brother Theo Van Gogh; however Gauguin only stayed for two months as the two often quarreled and the famous incident where Van Gogh severed his left ear with a razor occurred after an argument with Gauguin.

Van Gogh’s first impression on seeing the painting was that Gauguin had depicted him as a madman. He later softened his view. “My face has lit up after all a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.”

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (UK: /ˈɡoʊɡæ̃/, US: /ɡoʊˈɡæ̃/; French: [øʒɛn ɑ̃ʁi pɔl ɡoɡɛ̃]; 7 June 1848 – 8 May 1903) was a French post-Impressionist artist. Unappreciated until after his death, Gauguin is now recognized for his experimental use of color and Synthetist style that were distinctly different from Impressionism. Toward the end of his life, he spent ten years in French Polynesia, and most of his paintings from this time depict people or landscapes from that region.

Gauguin’s relationship with Vincent proved fraught. In 1888, at (van Gogh’s brother)Theo’s instigation, Gauguin and Vincent spent nine weeks painting together at Vincent’s Yellow House in Arles. Their relationship deteriorated and eventually Gauguin decided to leave. On the evening of 23 December 1888 according to a much later account of Gauguin’s, van Gogh confronted Gauguin with a razor blade. Later the same evening, van Gogh cut off his own left ear. He wrapped the severed tissue in newspaper and handed it to a woman who worked at a brothel both Gauguin and van Gogh had visited, and asked her to “keep this object carefully, in remembrance of me”. Van Gogh was hospitalized the following day and Gauguin left Arles.


Credits and Attributions:

Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin 1888 [Public domain]

Wikipedia contributors, “Paul Gauguin,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Paul_Gauguin&oldid=899278654 (accessed May 31, 201 Wikipedia contributors, “The Painter of Sunflowers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Painter_of_Sunflowers&oldid=853391418 (accessed May 31, 2019). 9).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Paul Gauguin – Vincent van Gogh painting sunflowers – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Paul_Gauguin_-_Vincent_van_Gogh_painting_sunflowers_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=321446852 (accessed May 31, 2019).

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World Building: Creating Power Structures and Religions #amwriting

ALL societies have an overarching power structure of some sort because someone has to be the leader. Similarly, all smaller segments within societies, from families to business, to churches, to governments have organized leadership structures, even if they aren’t formally described as such.

Power structure: the hierarchy that encompasses the most powerful people in an organization. An overall system of influence between individuals within any selected group of people.

Leader

→Assistant Leader(s)

→ →Assistant(s) to the Assistant Leader(s)

→ → → Middle-Level Clawing-their-way-to-Assistant Assistants

→ → → →Lower-Level-Hoping-to Survive-to-Retirement Assistants

→ → → → →Peons-Who-Do-the-Actual-Work-But-Don’t-Get-to-be-Called-Assistants

Religion rarely is a component of sci-fi but often figures prominently in fantasy work.

This is because a common way to train magic-gifted people is by apprenticeships, religious orders, or a school of some sort.

If you are taking the religious route, how important is the actual worship of the deity(s) in your tale?

Is there one god/goddess or many?

Benevolent or malevolent?

In many historical societies in this world, the Church/Temple was the governing power. The head of the religion was the ruler, and the higher one rose within the religious organization, the more power one had.

SO, in your world, how important is religion to your characters’ journey?

To convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work in the cities and towns, the segments of society outside the church.  Merchants, priests, teachers, healers, thieves—each occupation has a place in the hierarchy.

  • Is religion central to the governance of the society, or is it a peripheral, perhaps nonexistent thing?
  • What segment of society outside the church has the power and privilege, and who is the underclass?
  • How does the underclass live, and what is the role of religion in keeping them in their place?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • What passes for morality? Is sex before marriage taboo? What constitutes murder, and how is it viewed? You only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws, what are the consequences?

If the worship of a deity is a key part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and know how their deity holds their hearts. You must know how that deity considers his/her worshipers.

  1. What sort of political power does the priestly class wield?
  2. What is the internal hierarchy of the priesthood?
  3. Who has the power?
  4. Is this religion a benevolent entity or all-powerful, demanding, harsh?
  5. How does the priesthood interact with the community?
  6. Who can join the priesthood?
  7. Do people want to join the priesthood, or do they fear it? How is the priesthood trained?

In the Tower of Bones series, the overarching government in Neveyah is the Temple of Aeos, which is really a large commune run by mages. Mage-gifted children must be trained, and a school exists for that purpose. Aeos is the Goddess of Hearth and Home, so her style is a gentler, community based kind of religion.

Tauron is the Bull God, who rules the world of Serende, but who wants to be the only god in the universe. Hoping to force Aeos to become his wife, Tauron has attacked and imprisoned Aeos’s husband, the Mountain God Ariend, and has taken half of Ariend’s world. In Tauron’s world, only the strongest are worthy of survival.

Aeos managed to find her husband’s prison and reclaimed half his world, but she can’t undo another god’s work. Thus, her husband’s prison remains a prize in the ongoing war of the gods.

These actions of the deities brought civilization to its knees on the three worlds. At the time of the Tower of Bones series, the worlds have mostly recovered.

When I created the religious power-structure in the Tower of Bones series, the opportunities for creating tension within the story grew exponentially.

As I said, the underlying premise of the story is that the gods are at war. But the imprisonment of Ariend caused the Universe to bar the deities from acting directly against each other ever again.

Thus, their battles are fought through their people, their clergy who are gifted with the ability to use magic.

When one god makes a move that affects the balance of the worlds, the others make a change to counter it and their people are the playing pieces in their great game.

That meant I had two radically different religions to create, that of Aeos, and that of Tauron. Highly structured religion is central to my characters’ worlds of Neveyah and Serende. Their places in their respective societies revolves around their positions within those hierarchies.

But what if your work has no religious element?

On Monday, we will explore creating political power structures.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Carl Pippich Karlskirche Wien.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Carl_Pippich_Karlskirche_Wien.jpg&oldid=234767606 (accessed May 29, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Dommersen Gothic cathedral in a medieval city.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dommersen_Gothic_cathedral_in_a_medieval_city.jpg&oldid=319795786 (accessed May 29, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Cole Thomas The Return 1837.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Cole_Thomas_The_Return_1837.jpg&oldid=301862305 (accessed May 29, 2019).

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World Building – Where Magic and Science Converge #amwriting

Today we are examining the close relationship of two facets of world building in speculative fiction, science, and magic. Both are tools our characters employ.

Science is not magic. It is logical, rooted in the realm of real theoretical physics. The writer of true science fiction must know the difference, and never “let the streams cross.”

Egon: Don’t cross the streams.

Peter: Why?

Egon: It would be bad.

Peter: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean “bad”?

Egon: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

~ Ghostbusters, Screenwriters: Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, for Columbia Pictures, ©1984

Magic is not an accepted trope of hard science fiction so don’t even try to justify it. If you are writing a sci-fi fantasy mix, don’t try to pass it off as hard sci-fi. It is science-fantasy at that point, a subgenre of spec-fic.

Mushy science is just as offensive to fans of hard sci-fi as magic is, maybe more. Mushy science means the author didn’t research the possibilities thoroughly. When science fails the truth test, hard sci-fi fans will voice their opinions in bad reviews.

Those of us who are physics-geeks know what the cutting edge of propulsion technology is.  We read publications that tell us the new advances in laser tech. We know what is being discovered about exoplanets, how nothing truly earthlike has been discovered as of this writing.

We know all the ways currently being discussed regarding terraforming Mars. This planet is in our backyard and is within humanity’s grasp if we can work together and keep the greedy hotheads running our many different countries from screwing it up for the rest of us. So many possibilities, so many stories to imagine and write.

But what of Interstellar Propulsion? After all, we want to get to these newly found exoplanets and see if we can either adapt to them or make them fit us. My current favorite way to bring humans to another world is through the use of generation ships. Entire colonies living for generations on a moon-sized ship, traveling through the cosmos offers so many opportunities for drama. For some good research-reading and a plethora of ideas to investigate further, check out Futurism: Here is the Future of Interstellar Spacecraft.

When writing science fiction, the science is fundamental to the world:

Communications – This is the Future of Communication Thanks to Technology

Transportation – What’s the Future of Transportation?

Agriculture – High-rise Urban Farming

Waste management – The future of waste: five things to look for by 2025

Resource management – Resources for the Future: website  https://www.rff.org/

The environment of any spacefaring society must be created of technology, or they would not be able to leave the safety of this world. Earth is the only world known to harbor life as we know it.

Writers of science fiction must become futurists. They must take what is theoretically possible and think ahead. Your task is to take what science says is conceivable and make it feel true and solid.

Know the limits of whatever theoretical tech you are exploring in your work, write stories that stretch them, but don’t ignore them “for the sake of the story.” Limits are what keeps science from feeling like magic.

So, now we agree that science should never feel like magic. But shouldn’t magic feel like magic? Yes, but just like science, magic shouldn’t confer absolute power.

In both science and magic, forcing our characters to work around the limits is the key to good stories.

For me, as a reader, magic should only be possible if certain conditions have been met. This means the author has created a system that regulates what is possible. Magic works

  • if the number of people who can use it is limited.
  • if the ways in which it can be used are limited.
  • if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every kind of magic.
  • if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  • if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work.
  • if the damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
  • if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
  • if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
  • if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.

These conditions set the stage for you to create the Science of Magic, an underlying, invisible layer of the world you have built, one that possibly won’t get mentioned. But if you create this “science” and follow the arbitrary rules you have designed, your story won’t contradict itself.

For example, if in chapter three you declare that lightning mages cannot sense their magic in the rain, then it stands to reason they cannot sense it if immersed in a river in chapter twenty-three.

What challenges does your character have to overcome when learning to wield magic?

  • Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
  • If that is so, what is the block?
  • How does that inability affect their companions, and how do they feel about it?
  • Are the companions hampered in any way themselves?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize their abilities?

Even if this aspect does not come into the story, for your own information, you should decide who is in charge of teaching the magic, how that wisdom is dispensed, and who will be allowed to gain that knowledge.

  • is the prospective mage born with the ability to use magic or
  • is it spell-based and any reasonably intelligent person can learn it if they can find a teacher?

This is where science and magic converge. Magic and the ability to wield it confers power. Good technology does the same.

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

That means the enemy must have access to equal or better Science/Magic. So, if the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school,” you now have two systems to design for that story. You must create the ‘rules of magic’ or ‘the limits of science’ for both the protagonist and antagonist. Take the time to write it out and be sure the logic has no hidden flaws.

In creating science technologies and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within either system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there must be a good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

An important thing to consider whether using magic or technology: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when it affects the characters and their actions. Dole information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.

Science and magic are two sides of the personal-power coin we who write the two radically divergent sides of speculative fiction give our characters. In either sub-genre, these fundamental tropes offer your characters opportunities for success, but those opportunities must not be free and unlimited.

In both sci-fi and fantasy, the struggle is the story. How the characters overcome the limitations takes a person out of their comfortable environment. Roadblocks to success forces ordinary people to become more than they believe they are.

They become heroes.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from the movie, Ghostbusters, Screenwriters: Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, for Columbia Pictures, ©1984, Fair Use.

Ghostbusters theatrical release poster, Columbia Pictures ©1984, Fair Use.

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

 

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#FineArtFriday: Ruins of the Oybin (Dreamer) – Caspar David Friedrich 1835


What I like about this image:

This is a mystical, fairy tale place, painted by a man who believed in fairy tales. As was his habit, he took the image of a place  he knew, Oybin Castle, and turned it into a world apart. This is a thing genre authors regularly do – like fantasy painters we take what we know and reshape  it into something wonderful.

This particular view didn’t exist in this exact form, ever. But it did in his mind, and he painted it, placing himself in the middle of it. The smallest details of the perfect trees combined with the broad red coloration of the walls and the dusk-red of the sky to create the image of a moment he wished for, an hour of serenity.

Sunset, the hour of twilight, is a powerful moment, a time of transition between the worlds. We move from the world of daylight to the world of darkness. The same moment of spiritual power occurs at dawn. Fantasy painters are like authors, capable building a fantasy world in one image.

Friedrich found his happy place in the fantasy worlds he painted.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Caspar David Friedrich (5 September 1774 – 7 May 1840) was a 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter, generally considered the most important German artist of his generation. He is best known for his mid-period allegorical landscapes which typically feature contemplative figures silhouetted against night skies, morning mists, barren trees or Gothic ruins. His primary interest was the contemplation of nature, and his often symbolic and anti-classical work seeks to convey a subjective, emotional response to the natural world. Friedrich’s paintings characteristically set a human presence in diminished perspective amid expansive landscapes, reducing the figures to a scale that, according to the art historian Christopher John Murray, directs “the viewer’s gaze towards their metaphysical dimension.”

Artist: Caspar David Friedrich  (1774–1840)

Title:  German: Klosterruine Oybin (Der Träumer)

             English: Ruins of the Oybin (Dreamer)

Genre:  landscape art

Date:  circa 1835

Medium:  oil, on canvas

Dimensions:  Height: 27 cm (10.6 ″); Width: 21 cm (8.2 ″)

Collection: Hermitage Museum


Credits and Attributions

Ruins of the Oybin (Dreamer) – Caspar David Friedrich 1835 [Public domain]

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Caspar David Friedrich 011.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_011.jpg&oldid=326731449 (accessed May 24, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Caspar David Friedrich,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Caspar_David_Friedrich&oldid=897812018 (accessed May 24, 2019).

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World building Part 2 – the Commonalities of Need #amwriting

Need shapes the environment and forms an obvious but unobtrusive layer of the world our characters inhabit.

What our characters do for a living, the tools they use, what they must acquire – these things form a layer that grows out of need. This layer shows the reader the level of technology, the society they inhabit, and their standing within that culture. This layer is easy to construct in many ways but can be a stumbling block to the logic of your plot.

First, no matter what genre you are writing in, you must establish the level of technology and stick to it. Do the research and then create your technology.

The Romans had running water, central heating, and toilets in their homes. So did the Minoans. However, all their great architectural creations required human hands to do the physical work. They walked, rode horses, donkeys, or oxen, and were limited to wagons drawn by those same domestic beasts.

In the ordinary environment, cups will be cups, bowls will be bowls. The materials they are made of might be different, but those items will always be the same. Furniture will be similar—people need somewhere to sit or sleep. They need a place to cook and somewhere to store preserved food.

Clothing styles are up to you, but I suggest you keep it simple and don’t wax poetic about it.

Some aspects of a story require planning if you are to keep to the logic of your established world setting.

Characters remain the same, no matter what genre you are writing. Beneath the obvious tropes of a particular genre is a human being. Consider the soldier:

I write fantasy, so the following is an excerpt from a short story written this last year, The Way of the Seventh Door.

Worlds are like clothes. I could drop Jared into any world, and he would still be who he is—a young, hapless schmuck with potential. Genre defines the visuals, but the characters are paper dolls we dress to fit the society we have placed them in. The clothes and world of Soldier Barbie fits Corporate Barbie… and Malibu Barbie… and Star Wars Barbie.

We will take one protagonist and place them in one of three kinds of settings: fantasy, sci fi, or contemporary. As we go, write your own version of this scene.

  • A soldier, your choice of gender, gears up for an impending battle. It will take place on foreign soil and could involve personal, face-to-face combat.
  1. First, we must consider what garments they might wear.
  2. Next, we armor them.
  3. Then we give them weaponry.
  4. Finally, we equip them with some sort of rations and water, as sustenance becomes an issue if a battle stretches for several days.
  5. We do it in one paragraph.

Now let’s put Jared, my luckless protagonist from the previous example into this scenario. Fortunately for the safety of everyone in Neveyah, he isn’t preparing for war, but he does have a mission, and it requires dressing appropriately, and ensuring he has what he might need to complete it:

In any setting, there are certain commonalities with only minor literary differences for soldiers: they all need garments, weapons, armor, and sustenance, and you can use those things to

  1. offer more clues about your character’s personality and
  2. set your protagonist up for a meeting with destiny by inserting clues: white armor, new boots – what could go wrong?

Whether the weapon is a rifle, a sword, or a phaser is dependent on the level of technology you have established.

Logic determines how each need is met. In the case of weapons, within each category there are many varieties of each. Which kind of hand-held weapon your protagonist will use is dependent on their skill level and physical strength as well as what is stocked in the armory.

When it comes to weaponry, if you are writing about them, you need to research them to know what is logically possible. Within each of the three world settings, strength and skill are determining factors—a cutlass is an efficient blade and is much lighter than a claymore. A one-handed blade allows the wielder to carry a shield. A shotgun is much lighter than a machine-gun but is less effective, so be true to the logic and research what might be most useful to your characters and don’t introduce an element that doesn’t fit.

Sci-fi writers—I suggest that for advanced weaponry, you should do the research into theoretical applications of lasers, sonic, and other theoretically possible weapons. Sci fi readers know their science, so if you don’t consider the realities of physics, your work won’t appeal to the people who read in that genre.

For soldiers of any technology level, from Roman to medieval, to contemporary, to futuristic—armor will always consist of the same elements: breast and back plate, shin-guards, vambraces, a helmet of some sort, and maybe a shield. These elements won’t vary much, although the materials they’re made of will differ widely from technology to technology. For the sake of expediency and logic, garments must be close-fitting as they will go under the armor.

Expediency affects logic which affects need. The same is true for any occupation–bookkeeper, lawyer, home-maker–the setting changes from genre to genre, but the fundamental needs for each occupation remain the same.

In every aspect of a world, expediency decides what must be mentioned and how important it is. At times, you must go back to an earlier place and make changes that allow for a certain necessary turn of events.

For instance, in a battle situation, food must be extremely compact, lightweight, and must provide nutrients the soldier needs. Nutrition bars, jerky—battle rations and how the soldier carries them must be considered. How do you fit that into the world building? Casually, with one sentence, a few words.

What basic things do you need in your real-world? You need food, water, clothing, and shelter, and a means of providing those things. Place the character in a room and call it a kitchen, and the reader will immediately imagine a kitchen. Mention the coffeemaker, and the reader’s mind will furnish the cups.

Need manifests in other, more subtle ways.

Do you require a way to communicate with others quickly? Messengers, letters, telephones, social media, or telepathy? Choose a method for long distance communication that fits your technology and stick to it.

If you are writing a sci fi tale, what sort of personal power does that technology confer on the characters? What powers it? What are the limits of that technology, and how do those limits hamper the protagonist? What do they need to acquire to overcome those limitations?

If magic is a part of your world, you must design the way it is used, what powers it, and set rigid limits. Limits create opportunities for both failure and creative thinking.

In all levels of technology, some of what the characters need should be denied to them.

Obstruction offers the opportunity for heroism.

No matter the genre, need and human failure makes the story more real.

Next week, we will explore the commonalities of science and magic and how they are applied to world building.


Credits and Attributions:

Excepts from The Way of the Seventh Door, © Connie J. Jasperson 2019, All Rights Reserved.

Gladys Parker [Public domain] “Mopsy Modes” paper doll published in TV Teens, Vol. 2, No. 9 Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Mopsy Modes – TV Teens, Vol. 2, No. 9.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Mopsy_Modes_-_TV_Teens,_Vol._2,_No._9.jpg&oldid=344503399 (accessed May 21, 2019).

Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0] Japanese Paper Doll, ca. 1897-1898 Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:MET DP147723.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:MET_DP147723.jpg&oldid=305535412 (accessed May 21, 2019).

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World building part 1: visualization #amwriting

World building—a skill all writers must have, not just writers of fantasy or sci-fi. I don’t believe there is a magic formula. ALL world building comprises the ability to visualize yourself existing in an environment you currently don’t occupy, be it Seattle, Mars, or The Shire.

First, you need to know where you are.

Close your eyes. What does the world around you look like? Are you sitting in a lounger on a quiet back porch, drinking your morning coffee while you scroll through your favorite blogs? Perhaps you regret purchasing the blue and white patterned outdoor carpet. It jars the eye, clashes against the red-stained cedar decking.

Even more annoying, Stellar’s jays and crows are quarreling over something, which means no other birds will come until they have settled their dispute. Meanwhile, the neighbor’s garishly colored cat stalks through the rhododendrons toward the broken garden lamp, vainly searching for songbirds to bully. Who would want a cat so hideously colored, black, orange white and beige all in large patches? And why do they let it roam? What if it gets injured or killed?

While I visualize that scene, I am sitting in my frequently described Room of Shame, pecking away at a blog post like a good author. For that scene, I am only describing what is important to my alter ego at the moment she exists, a framework to hang your imagination onto. But I know that environment because it is one step away, out my back door.

If you can’t write what you know, how can you write what you don’t know but wish you did?

For your first exercise, write two paragraphs describing your personal environment, where you are in this time and space, what you see, hear, and smell. With that done, you have created the known world.

So how do we translate the known into the unknown?

For this exercise, we will imagine a setting, a world blasted by a global catastrophe. Not sure exactly of what happened, our protagonist, Jane, walks through the wreckage of the city, trailed by a large group of young children and several other teachers. In an overcrowded, under-funded urban school, they had been relegated to a classroom in the school’s basement at the time and may be the only survivors, but Jane believes that if they are alive, some others must be too. They are walking out of the city, hoping that some patches are still undamaged, that some plants and animals must have survived.

What does she see, hear, and smell? You write your scenario, but this is mine:

Jane walked, pretending a confidence she didn’t feel. Random piles of debris that once were shops and homes lined the broken street. Was that where the café had been? No, it had been a little further on, but with no familiar landmarks, it was hard to tell.

No birds sang, no cats prowled, and no dogs barked. Twisted metal, destroyed, burned-out cars lined the broken street. No rescuers combed through the tumbled ruins looking for survivors, and no voices called for help. The only sounds were the wind sighing through the ruins, the noise of their plodding steps, and occasional whimpers of the children who followed her.

They passed places where the smell of rotting flesh and other unpleasant odors triggered her gag reflex. Some children cried. Who could blame them? The charred, shattered ruins they now walked past had been their homes. Did they know? Could they recognize small details?

How does her environment affect her movements and emotional state?

She came to a large, long pile of wreckage in the middle of the street, cars that had been moving when it happened. She didn’t want to think of the bodies that remained trapped inside the twisted, melted metal, of the last moments they had experienced. The way between was narrow, but they could do it. She turned to her group. “Walk carefully, single file. No one is to touch anything. We have no way of treating injuries.”

“Yes, Miss Jane,” said Jason, the teacher shepherding the middle of the group.

“Yes, Miss Jane,” dutifully echoed the students, all the way back to Dave, the teacher bringing up the rear.

The world around you is complex. It is made up of what you interact with, things you see, hear, smell, and touch.

The world you want to create is the same. Visualize each scene. Trees, randomly placed furniture, doors, any obstacle that affects your protagonists’ movements becomes part of that world.

Your next assignment is to take one of these scenarios and write a scene that places your protagonist squarely in their environment. You can make these settings in a real world, sci-fi, or fantasy environment.

  1. A policewoman/man having lunch at the corner deli.
  2. A barista in a popular coffee shop.
  3. A woman watching her suspicious-acting neighbors.
  4. A soldier, preparing for a raid.
  5. A politician reading an exposé about their self.

I can make my back porch into a fantasy setting.

This is a passage from Edna’s Garden, a short story I wrote several years ago.

This morning I noticed there were fairies in the back garden. I was a little shocked, wondering if they were a side effect of my heart medication. At first, I couldn’t see them well, and wasn’t sure if they were bugs or birds, but no… when I looked closer, I could see they were definitely fairies.

It seems odd to me, to think that after all these years of wishing for a fairytale ending in my life, I should finally have a garden full of fairies. But life is what it is, and sometimes the things you want elude you until you no longer need them.

World building is like cooking (or alchemy, which is the same thing). Writers start with basic ingredients found in the world they know. Cooks begin with common ingredients and add spices, the flavors they like that make their food unique to them. Writers do the same: we take the familiar world and reshape it until it is our creation.

If the world has some familiar elements the reader can relate to, they will suspend their disbelief when you casually place an alien element in the setting. We bend what is familiar, shaping it into something that feels new and unfamiliar. That unfamiliarity to the reader adds the mystery, the intrigue, lets them experience a sense of discovery.

At the outset, you plant the seeds of the world in the opening scene. As the story progresses, the world grows, building itself. This happens because the protagonist interacts with the environment. Fulfilling the needs of the protagonist also contributes to the world you build. Logic comes into play—you may have to go back and change things up a bit when new needs emerge.

We will talk more about how need shapes the fantasy world in my next blog post. In the meantime, go to your personal library and re-read one of the fantasy books (or whatever genre you are writing) that fired your imagination, a book you fell in love with. How did that author show the world? How did they take the real world and merge it with fantasy elements?

How can you apply that lesson to your own work?


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Martinus Rørbye – View from the Artist’s Window – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Martinus_R%C3%B8rbye_-_View_from_the_Artist%27s_Window_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=326761582 (accessed May 17, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An architectural capriccio with figures amongst ruins under a stormy night sky, oil on canvas painting by Leonardo Coccorante.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_architectural_capriccio_with_figures_amongst_ruins_under_a_stormy_night_sky,_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Leonardo_Coccorante.jpg&oldid=291488853 (accessed May 19, 2019).

Hunter in Winter Wood, by George Henry Durrie 1860 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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#FineArtFriday: View from the Artist’s Window, Martinus Rørbye

What I like about this painting:

View from the Artist’s Window was painted just at the time when the young Rørbye was gaining recognition as an artist, around the year 1825. The room is pleasant, homey, and the pink hydrangeas are beautiful. The transparency of the curtain is masterfully done.

The shipyard is represented as looming below and in the distance, a dominant view in the artist’s life.

The visual allegory of the caged bird floating out of the open window is wonderful, representing the young artist poised on the edge of leaving home, daring to imagine the wide, unknown world that waits for him.

The possibility of adventure is represented by the view of the working shipyard and the ship berthed in the harbor below.

About the artist, via Wikipedia:

Martinus Christian Wesseltoft Rørbye (17 May 1803 – 29 August 1848) was a Danish painter, known both for genre works and landscapes. He was a central figure of the Golden Age of Danish painting during the first half of the 19th century.

The most traveled of the Danish Golden Age painters, he traveled to Norway and Sweden and south to Italy, Greece and Constantinople.

He is remembered for his genre paintings, his landscapes and his architectural paintings, as well as for the many sketches he made during his numerous travels. He painted numerous scenes of life in Copenhagen, as well as large compositions showing Italian and Turkish landscapes and scenes of folk life. He painted few portraits.

He was one of the most traveled of the Golden Age painters and distinguished his artistic production by his interpretations of lands rarely explored at that time for their artistic motifs, as well as for his anecdotal genre paintings depicting the Copenhagen of his day.

Title: View from the Artist’s Window, Martinus Rørbye [Public domain]

  • Genre: landscape art
  • Date: About 1825
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Dimensions: Height: 380 mm (14.96 ″); Width: 298 mm (11.73 ″)

Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Martinus Rørbye – View from the Artist’s Window – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Martinus_R%C3%B8rbye_-_View_from_the_Artist%27s_Window_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=326761582 (accessed May 17, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Martinus Rørbye,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Martinus_R%C3%B8rbye&oldid=895614706

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Fantasy Food #amwriting

As many of you know, I have been vegan since 2012. However, I write books set in fantasy environments. An important part of world building is including the appropriate food for your level of technology.

I recently read a fantasy book where the author went to a great deal of trouble to give each kind of fruit, bird, or herd beast a different (and in some cases, an unpronounceable) name in “their” language.  This ruined what could have been a great book for me. Every time the protagonists halted on their journey, they pulled some random fruit with a gobbledygook name out of the bag and waxed poetic about it.

For me, Tolkien had it right. When I am reading, I don’t want to have to learn a new language. Fantasy food should be kept to the familiar. Bacon should be bacon, apples should be apples. Food is part of the world building, so it needs to something a reader is familiar with.

During the 1980s, much of the meat I served my family, we raised ourselves. Our chickens were cage free and had good lives, and our sheep were raised using simple, old-style farming methods. I grew up fishing with my father, and I have a first-person understanding of what it takes to put meat, fish, or fowl on the table when a supermarket is not an option. Take my word for this: getting a chicken from the coop to the table is time-consuming, messy, and smelly.

SO – in a medieval setting meat won’t be served every day, and not just because it is a real job to slaughter it. Other, more subtle factors come into play, things that affect the logic of your plot.

In the middle ages, the wool a sheep could produce in its lifetime was of far more value than the meat you might get by slaughtering it. For that reason, lamb was rarely served. The only sheep that made it to the table were usually rams that were being culled from the herd. And chickens were no different because once a chicken is dead, you lose the many meals her eggs would have provided. Cattle were also more valuable alive: cows as milk producers and bulls as oxen, draft animals.

In medieval times, on many estates, it was a felony for commoners in Britain to hunt for game. However, most people were allowed to fish as long as they didn’t take salmon, so fish was on the menu more often than fowl, sheep, or cattle.

Therefore, eels, eggs, grains, and vegetables were easy and figured most prominently on the menu. Pies of all sorts were the fast food of the era.

Wheat was rare and expensive. For that reason, the grains most often found in a peasant’s home were barley, oats, and rye.

Common vegetables in medieval European gardens were leeks, garlic, onions, turnips, rutabagas, cabbages, carrots, peas, beans, cauliflower, squashes, gourds, melons, parsnips, aubergines (eggplants)—the list goes on and on. And fruits? Wikipedia says:

Fruit was popular and could be served fresh, dried, or preserved, and was a common ingredient in many cooked dishes. Since sugar and honey were both expensive, it was common to include many types of fruit in dishes that called for sweeteners of some sort. The fruits of choice in the south were lemons, citrons, bitter oranges (the sweet type was not introduced until several hundred years later), pomegranates, quinces, and grapes. Farther north, apples, pears, plums, and wild strawberries were more common. Figs and dates were eaten all over Europe but remained rather expensive imports in the north.

Even a century ago, the average person didn’t eat meat every day because it was difficult to acquire. To buy it from the butcher, you paid them for their time and labor as well as for the cut of meat. It was not cheap.

For the most part, my characters eat a medieval/agrarian diet. In medieval times, peasants ate more vegetables, grains, fruits, and nuts than the nobility did. The main source of protein would be eggs and cheese. Herbal teas, ale, ciders, and mead were also staples of the commoner’s diet because drinking fresh, unboiled water was unhealthy. Medieval brews were more of a meal than today’s beers.

So, in Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers, when food is mentioned, it’s likely to be oat porridge, soup or stew, ale or cider, or bread and cheese.

Billy is captain of a mercenary company and an innkeeper, and for most of his story he does the cooking. I keep the food simple and don’t make too big a deal out of it. The conversations that happen while he is trying to feed the Rowdies are more important than the food. The food is the backdrop.

For Huw (pronounced Hugh), starvation is his most urgent problem, so food and the difficulties of obtaining it are an integral part of his story at the outset.

Knowing what to feed your people keeps you from introducing jarring components into your narrative. In the world of Neveyah (Tower of Bones), my people have a New World diet. It isn’t really mentioned, but maize and potatoes are important staples as are beans and wild greens.

When it comes to writing about meals, I feel it’s best to concentrate on the conversations. The food should be part of the scenery, a subtle part of world building. The conversations that occur around food are the places where new information can be exchanged, things we need to know to move the story forward,


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Medieval cuisine,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Medieval_cuisine&oldid=896980025 (accessed May 14, 2019).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (1526/1530–1569) PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Village Scene with Well,  Josse de Momper and Jan Brueghel II PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

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